from the Book of Games of Alfonso X, 13th century
In 711AD medieval Spain was invaded by armies from the Muslim world. These invaders would rule the region for the next several hundred years, build lasting monuments and leaving an unmistakable influence on the culture of Europe in the area of science, medicine, literature and music. Among these invaders were Arabs, Berbers (in their variable ancestries) and black Africans. Collectively they would be called Moors by Europeans.
Originally from the Latin Mauri referring to North African ethnic groups in the Maghreb, the term became associated with the words "swarthy or dark." In medieval Europe it came to represent Muslim through the derivation Moor. And it was used interchangeably with "arabe" or "musulman" despite one's racial or ethnic identity. Thus the historiography shows that the term Moor has varied meanings that have changed over time.
Caught up in the role of blacks in Islamic Spain is the term Berber, the population of North Africa who likely made up the bulk of the non-Iberian converted Islamic forces. These peoples of the Maghreb, who refer to themselves collectively as Amazigh, are often distinguished from "sub-Saharan" Africans, and linked to Mediterranean populations, and noted for "exotic" features such as red hair and green eyes. Contesting this, Afrocentric writers, like James Brunson and Runoko Rashidi, have postulated that Berbers are originally black and that lighter skinned "tawny" Moors are the product of centuries of European slaves entering the region. The truth may be more nuanced than both views
Nomadic Berbers, modern day
As early as pharaonic Egypt, depictions of the people of the Maghreb have varied, from brown-skinned to lighter. And Roman writers of Classical times speak to a population that is at best fluid in make-up. Today the Amazigh are the majority population of North Africa, in such countries as Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. But some, who still live a nomadic existence, also bear the name Amazigh as far as the Sahel in Mali and Niger. It may be in the end that Amazigh is a linguistic rather than "racial" term, and reflect a wide variety of peoples who have been influenced by interactions with groups to their North and South.
Within modern historical annals, the roles most assigned to blacks in Muslim Spain by writers are that of soldier and slave. Most modern writers associate the one word agreed upon to mean black, Sudanese, with the word slave. Michael Brett in The Moors writes that blacks were imported over the years as slaves from the western and central Sudan, and employed as servants and soldiers as well as concubines." Note, Sudan here refers not to the modern day nation-state, but parts of West Africa.
Other historians offer more complex descriptions of these slave soldiers. Michael O'Callaghan in his work, "A History of Medieval Spain" remarks that slavery within the Muslim world afforded movement along the social ladder regardless of one's status. O'Callaghan gives us a little more insight, remarking that the Umayyad dynasty ruler Al-Hakam "recruited a large bodyguard of Negroes."
O'Callaghan also mentions accounts of "mounted Negro archers wearing white capes," who proved valuable in Islamic Spain's constant warfare with itself and Christian Europeans. O'Callaghan states, "A corps of professional soldiers paid regular wages proved to be a more valuable instrument of war. Al-Hakam I was the first to recruit large numbers of mercenaries, including Berbers and Sudanese Negroes. Although many of the guardsmen were slaves and freedmen, they came to enjoy an exceptional political and military importance."
It is of note that O'Callaghan describes the slave army as "mercenaries" as slave may be too simple a description, or perhaps even a misleading one. Richard Fletcher in his work "Moorish Spain" also points to the confusing label of the term "slave" when referring to the Muslim military. He states, "slave is perhaps a misleading term, since by no means all such soldiers were unfree. Mercenary or simply 'professional' might be more appropriate." O'Callaghan cites an Arab jurist of Almoravid Seville who speaks of "Negro soldiers who wore the Almoravid veil."
Beyond what historical texts and writings can tell us, there is a long presence of black-a-moors in European medieval literature, particularly within the ranks of Muslim military forces. Some are claimed observations. Others are semi-historical legendary sagas. While the latter accounts cannot always be taken as factual evidence, they do give insight into the perception of blacks among the Muslim armies, and their performance in the European imagination as militarized figures.
Miriam DeCosta looks to the medieval Spanish manuscript, the Cantigas, to explain the status of black soldiers in Muslim Spain. He points to pictures of the Almoravid army in the Cantigas stating, "Black Moors are not always presented as servants or captives; indeed, according to medieval illuminators, they seem to have held prominent positions in Moorish society, particularly the military. The army of the Almoravid regime--which saw Muslims flocking to Iberia from as far as Senegal--was commonly divided by rank into foot soldiers or advance guard, bowsmen, lancers on horseback and generals."
Muslims (R) in battle with Christian forces (L) in the Cantigas, 13th century.
Muslim foot soldiers and cavalry, the Cantigas
Muslim sailors, the Cantigas
To highlight the social mobility of these soldiers DeCosta points to Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the leader of the Almoravid forces that recapture Spain in the 11th Century. DeCosta remarks that Yusuf is said to be a Sanhaja Berber "from the Sudan near Ghana." He also makes mention of the Arab chronicler Al-Fasi who describes Yusuf as a "brown man with wooly hair." DeCosta contends that this description places Yusuf as a Berber of at the least partial black-African heritage.
Beyond the roles of soldier and slave, there is little written on blacks in Muslim Spain. Very few writers associate any blacks with members of the nobility. Hugh Kennedy in "Muslim Spain and Portugal" cites a possible reference to a black noble. Kennedy describes Al-Hakam, who ruled the Umayyad Amirate, as "tall, thin, haughty and strikingly dark in complexion." This is Kennedy's only reference to Al-Hakam' appearance, noting that he is of different appearance than his Arab father. But Kennedy never explains the reason for this.
DeCosta refers to the Cantigas for evidence of black nobility in Muslim Spain. He states "blacks also figured among the Moorish aristocracy." He points to pictures within the Cantigas that depict black nobles. One of these is a picture depicting a rich sultan dispensing gifts among other members of the nobility. One of those depicted is clearly black. DeCosta also points to one of the most famous images of black nobles in Muslim Spain, highlighting a picture depicting two black "Moorish" noblemen playing chess from The Book of Games. Both black and white servants wait upon them.